Fear and the Sandbox, Part II: Nurturing Innovation in the Workplace

By Tristan Kromer

As the head of DHL’s Startup Lab — the company’s internal incubation program headquartered in Bonn, Germany — Johannes “Joey” Naumann has two main responsibilities. On the one hand, he wants to bring the skills and experience he’s gained from his eight years with the company to create new value for DHL. On the other, he wants to guide young intrapreneurs through the challenges he’s faced during his time in the trenches.

Joey discovered that these two roads meet at an unusual intersection: Fear. Fear of failure can severely limit a company’s ability to grow, and it can quickly curtail a budding innovator’s career. Click To Tweet

Sign on a vending machine that says, The light inside has broken but I still work.

Fail Like a Pro

But fear is also a natural (and healthy) byproduct of innovation. A lot of work goes into supporting innovation in a major corporation, including ideation, scaling and accelerating projects to fruition. And at every step, fear can stand in the way of a breakthrough. It’s something Joey has seen in his colleagues, and has had to grapple with himself, but he’s learned to turn this potential limitation into a solid asset.

Fear of Failure messaging. You are going to be fine.

Learning, of course, means overcoming challenges. Consuming resources (time and money) and navigating existing structures and processes requires establishing a sandbox — a safe environment to play with ideas. A place to test and validate concepts without giving in to the fear of running afoul of corporate expectations.

So Joey has had to walk the line between using resources wisely and creating a safe environment — a workplace culture where failure is an acceptable option. Failure, when it teaches us what is working and what is not, needs to be seen as a sign of progress. Click To Tweet

One might think telling someone that it’s okay to fail would provide relief, but Joey has discovered that’s not always the case. “We’d often see teams and entrepreneurs that we accepted to the program were reluctant to talk to customers. Although we try to create a culture within our program to accept the benefits and strength of our approach, we still see a certain fear of rejection that people have to overcome in order to talk to people, to really get out of the building. They are afraid of showing anyone a half-perfect solution.”

Fear of Perception

A large component of workplace fear is dealing with the hierarchy. Potential sponsors — C-list folks that hold your career in their hands — are intimidating simply by virtue of their position. It’s hard for anyone to overcome the fear that you will be seen as wasting resources, or not focusing on the core business model or the company’s profit margin.

“We see it even in our Startup Lab team,” says Joey. “We feel that we are working in an ecosystem that we can all stand behind, but when it comes to securing the future of our program, if we can’t show a few projects with real economic potential, there may come a time when we don’t exist anymore.”

Poorly designed shirt that reads, Don't be happy worry.

Fear of failure — or even the perception of failure by your colleagues — can be debilitating. Joey has taught himself to recognize when fear in the workplace is holding him back, and has to dig deep to remind himself that it must be faced head-on. “It doesn’t help the first time you encounter fear,” he says, “but when I see it’s holding me back, or it’s taking away opportunities — personal or professional — then it develops a certain relevance that helps me deal with being uncomfortable.” In a sense, the fear of missing out on an opportunity can help one overcome a fear of failure.

This self-awareness has helped him to bring his experience to his teammates as well, allowing him to empathize with them by sharing examples of his own fear.“It’s important to show your team how to focus on learning from fear rather than avoiding it. Failure is always an opportunity.” - Joey Naumann Click To Tweet

Failure as Motivation

Of course, participants in the innovation program have to be as mindful of their careers as they are of their ideas. A Startup Lab can be a career boost or a dead-end, and Joey has seen both.

Message about overcoming fear. You didn't come this far to only come this far.

“We’ve seen instances of people who were promised promotions for years, but during their time with us they weren’t getting them. We don’t know 100% if that’s because of their participation in our program — like the line manager is questioning their focus on their core job responsibilities. But at the same time we’ve seen people make a really huge career move because they were able to create a new business that they were able to manage, which meant a large hierarchical step upwards. We’ve also seen people whose projects were not continued, but they made a positive career step afterwards because they learned a lot and were able to leverage their skill set.”

But this is all relative to the culture of the workplace. Advancement through innovation — whether that innovation is successful or not — can depend largely on who a person reports to, and how committed to innovation that boss is. When it comes to innovation, a less-than-visionary middle-manager can kill the careers of those toiling below. Click To Tweet

This is why Joey focuses on workplace culture as much as individual projects, actively evangelizing the value of risk. This includes organizing Fuckup Nights — yes, that’s the real name of the event — that include C-suite failures. In one case, an executive shared a 10-figure mistake (that’s billions, folks) that would make any local failure look positively adorable.

Events to Overcome Fear of Failure: Fuckup Nights. Dropped cupcake.

Failing All Over the World

Of course, with a half-million employees, local events are barely going to scratch the surface. Using internal communication channels and social media platforms to share stories of failure helps spread and normalize the culture of taking appropriate risks and turning fear into opportunity. Click To Tweet

Sign outside a restaurant: Come in and try the worst meatball sandwich that one guy on yelp ever had in his life.

Recently, Joey’s lab has launched a series of meetup events with local startup communities to share frameworks that promote the normalization of learning via failure, and these events are now going international.

But can hearing stories of failure from foreign startups really change the culture in a massive, results-driven company?

“I hope so,” says Joey. “American entrepreneurs typically have failed quite a lot of times, and in a normal startup system that failure is seen in a different light. So bringing that different perspective in, and showing how normal failure is for them, can be quite powerful.

Painted pavement that reads, Right turn only, but you can't turn right.

“If you compare the U.S. ecosystem culture with a German one, there’s still quite a lot of difference. I failed three times and now I’m founding my fourth startup — I think that storyline, looking from the outside-in, is a stronger storyline in the U.S. than it is in Germany — it’s just not a very German thing to do.”

Lessons Learned

  • Fear of presenting partial solutions can limit critical customer feedback and prevent the next big breakthrough.
  • Fear of career damage can prevent promising entrepreneurs from joining corporate innovation programs.
  • Making failure visible can help corporate culture reframe failure as the road to success.

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